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 / Autumn 2007 / Issue 48(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Science of Subtle Signals

By analyzing overlooked behavioral cues, researchers are creating a new understanding of organizational effectiveness.

In 2006, when Vertex Data Science — a US$724 million private company based near Liverpool, England, and one of the world’s largest providers of call center outsourcing — wanted to improve the performance of its telephone sales operators, the managers went looking for an unusual kind of self-understanding. They enlisted the aid of Alex Pentland and his colleagues from the Human Dynamics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the elite research institute for digital technology founded by technology pioneers Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner. The researchers at the Human Dynamics Group were best known for their experiments in human–machine interplay and wearable computing: using portable devices built into eyeglasses and clothing to track movement and other human activity. They traveled to Vertex’s operations offices in Inverness, Scotland, to set up electronic devices that analyzed the speech patterns of the operators on the call center floor. The devices captured neither the specific words that the operators used nor the logic of their conversations, but only the physical voice signal: the measured variations in tone and pitch. Even so, Pentland and his researchers predicted accurately, after only a few seconds of listening, the ultimate success or failure of almost every call.

Professor Alex Pentland (seated) and researchers at the MIT Media Lab Human Dynamics Group (from left to right): Benjamin Waber, Agnes Chang, Taemie Kim, and Koji Ara.
Photographs by Peter Gregoire

Successful operators, it turned out, speak little and listen much. When they do speak, their voices fluctuate strongly in amplitude and pitch, suggesting interest and responsiveness to the customer’s needs. Operators who speak with little variation come across as too determined and authoritative, but by speaking invitingly, being responsive but not pushy, a skilled operator can let callers find their own way to a sale. “Like a mother speaking singsong to a baby,” says Pentland, “variation sounds perky and inviting. If operators do it right, they’re almost certain to be successful.” Armed with this understanding, a company like Vertex can train its operators to converse more effectively, and can seek new hires who exhibit these speech patterns. If a call starts going badly, a supervisor can detect the signs quickly enough to switch it to another operator. Early experiments have suggested that these insights can improve a company’s telephone sales performance by 20 percent or more. And the same is true of other forms of corporate communication. “In pitching business plans, for instance,” Pentland points out, “consistency of tone and pace is key to getting your plan rated highly.”

This story is a straightforward tale of managerial intervention and success. But it also throws down a profound challenge to the prevailing views of organizational effectiveness. Most explanations of human behavior in the business world presume that people — be they employees, consumers, or executives — are influenced most by meaning and reasoning. It’s what gets said that matters, not how it is said. But the per­formance of these telephone operators and a growing volume of other evidence suggest that this view is seriously flawed.

In a wide variety of facets of everyday business, the keys to sustained success may actually lie in understanding the kinds of signals that are ordinarily overlooked: tone of voice, body language, the ways people congregate (or don’t), the time spent on tasks, the rhythms of workplace activity, and the patterns of social networks. Those on Pentland’s team — and their counterparts at other research institutions, such as Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Intel Research in Seattle — are designing new ways to track and make sense of such indicators. The resulting new science of subtle signals may lead not just to more profitable sales pitches, but also to a richer, deeper understanding of the practice of management and the way organizations work.

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  1. Edward Baker, “When Teams Fail: The Virtual Distance Challenge,” s+b Leading Idea, 5/22/07: An intriguing example of organizational sensibility: Far-flung teams are more effective when members feel operational or cultural affinity. Click here.
  2. Mark Buchanan, The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (Bloomsbury USA, 2007): The author of this article lays out the knowledge of patterns of behavior in social systems, based on models, observation, and quantum physics. Updated on Buchanan’s Weblog. Click here.
  3. Tanzeem Choudhury, Matthai Philipose, Danny Wyatt, and Jonathan Lester, “Towards Activity Databases: Using Sensors and Statistical Models to Summarize People’s Lives,” Data Engineering Bulletin, March 2006: Summary of Intel research on “smart environments.” Click here.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink! The Power of Thinking without Thinking (Little, Brown, 2005): On the human propensity for snap judgments, which sensors may enhance — or degrade. Click here.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Elliott Jaques Levels with You,” s+b, First Quarter 2001: Source of the quote about 17th-century science and modern management. Click here.
  6. Karen Otazo, “On Trust and Culture,” s+b, Autumn 2006: Overview of the literature on social network analysis, studying organizations by tracking “who you know.” Click here.
  7. Alex Pentland’s MIT Media Lab home page: Source on the Human Dynamics Group and relevant papers. Click here.
  8. Connectedness Weblog: Definitive blog on social network analysis trends by researcher Bruce Hoppe. Click here.
  9. Managerial Network Analysis: Steve Borgatti’s Web site, with links to his research. Click here.
  10. “Remembering Mark Weiser,” 1999: Memorial site for the pioneer of ubiquitous computing contains a biography and links to sources of research and commentary. Click here.
  11. For more articles on organizations and people, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.
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